Friday, May 27, 2011

Second book

In the preface to his second book, way back in 1997, Michael Pollan, the food guy, expresses his theory that a writer's second book is the most difficult to write and the most revealing to read. The first book, he says, is like a point in the infinite space of possibility; "it can be about anything and lead nowhere in particular." A writer's second book, by placing a second point in the space of possibility, establishes a line, a path that often sets the course of the writer's career.

So how does this theory apply to my own trajectory, now that it is winding down?

Pretty good, I think, with one modification.

My first three books (four, actually) were pretty much straight science, deriving almost directly from my teaching: Interstate 80, 365 Starry Nights, The Crust of the Earth, and Biography of a Planet. They were basically a twenty-year core dump in words and drawings of pedagogies I had developed in the classroom, wake-up stories for those 8:30 AM classes in earth science and astronomy when students stumbled in groggy-eyed and inert. The books didn't reveal much of my personal intellectual interests, which I kept out of the classroom.

The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage was my first real book -- personal, poetic, idiosyncratic -- the first dart hurled into the space of unlimited possibility. (It might never have been published if it hadn't been for the success of 365 Starry Nights and the publishing contacts I had made with the earlier books.)

My "second" book was Honey From Stone: A Naturalist's Search for God. Another dart tossed into the space of possibility, a second point, and a line defined. A line on the shore between the firm ground of scientific knowledge and the infinite sea of mystery. Everything that followed -- fiction and non-fiction -- has been a walk on that shore.

The danger, of course, as Michael Pollan acknowledges, is repeating oneself, and perhaps I have reached the point in my career where I have said it all before. "I suspect that every writer has [a] set of ultimate questions, and if you read their work long enough you will find the path of their narrative…inevitably winding its way back to the Mother Issue," writes Pollan. The Mother Issue. Walking the shore between knowledge and mystery -- wide-eyed, drop-jawed, a tingle in the spine.

There was one exception to what I have written above, one book that was decidedly off-path, the rollicking comic novel Chattanooga, published in France quite some time ago to gratifying acclaim, but not heretofore available in English, for personal reasons. That is now changing, thanks to son Dan. Stay tuned.

(Early Monday morning I fly to Panama. A few days later I will join the JOIDES Resolution for a transit of the canal and on to Curacao. The ship will be coming off an attempt to drill closer to the Earth's mantle than ever before. I hope to be blogging from Panama and the ship, but we'll have to wait and see what sorts of internet connections I have access to. I'll be back with you as soon as I can. Meanwhile, a reprise tomorrow and Anne on Sunday.)